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[Transcribed by Megan Stevens]

The Times 23 Feb 1855 p 5


OUR COMMISSARIAT

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES

Sir, — On the verge of some sort of change (and, as we all devoutly hope, of beneficial change) in the arrangements for our army, any suggestion as to the degree and species of alteration is worth considering. The hot disputes respecting the amount of blame to be awarded to persons, and that which may fairly attach to a vicious system, proves that we have not yet clearly decided where the evil lies; but, like passengers on board a steamer suddenly arrested at sea, we have a vague, startling conviction that something must be wrong. Whether the fires are out, the machinery broken, or a pin come out of one of the valves, which allows of easy and rapid remedy, we are yet unaware. I am one of those who believe the system to be so faulty that no men, however honest or earnest, could work efficiently under it, any more than they could clear a wreck of its masts with hatchets that had no handles.

The day is come when, noble and courageous as England has shown herself, she must stoop a little from her self-importance and accept lessons from others if she would keep up her real importance among nations. Her proud conviction that, like Milton’s Eve, everything she does is “wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best,” must be set aside. Among these lessons surely the management of the French commissariat deserves a place. Their commissariat marches with their army. I believe in that brief sentence lies the secret of the only real superiority of our gallant allies during this dreary campaign. In the patient fidelity and subordination of our soldiers, in the bravery of the officers who lead them, we need fear no rivalry; but in the miserable mismanagement of our supplies we may see the contrasted advantage of their commissariat system. They have competent and authorized persons with every regiment, charged with the management and distribution of the supplies of that regiment, bound to see that the men are fed and clothed. Those who are so bound are on the spot; they are among those men whose wants are to be dealt with, face to face with those whose sufferings are to be relieved. There is no writing home to complain of unroasted coffee-berries, and waiting two months to learn that “their Lordships were not aware” of this ground for starved discontent; no passing from Board to Board, or from office to office in Paris, before the order can be issued which is to set to rights something which ought never to have gone wrong. Our allies have studied with more attention than ourselves, not so much the art of war, as the very homely and familiar proverb, “While the grass grows, the steed starves.” I believe the time will come when justice will be done to the War Ministers who had to work under a network complication of routine delays. I wish I could feel as sure that the different men will be accompanied by a determination to adopt a different scheme for our commissariat. What would be said of a master manufacturer, who, perceiving the commercial prosperity consequent on a neighbour’s adoption of improved machinery, contended himself with changing his foreman and head clerk, and working the old machinery with new hands? What hinders that we should have an “ambulant” commissariat as our neighbours have? What hinders that we also should impose on competent persons, actually present with our soldiery in camp, the responsibilities now so distant and so subdivided that our troops perish while means for preventing their so perishing are discussed thousands of miles away, and answers are vainly pressed for in Ministerial bureaus respecting the fate of men whose fate, though lingering, is more rapid than the possibility of Ministerial replies? I believe the ex-War Minister to have done his utmost, honestly, energetically, and compassionately, with a deep sense of his awful responsibilities; and I believe the present or any future War Minister, who accepts the Atlas task of lifting our army to the position expected and demanded by the country, without a total change of system, and more especially of our commissariat system, will merely witness a repetition of the shameful and sorrowful spectacle of an army decimated by famine and discomfort in the very sight of a conquered and repulsed foe, by whose unfeared weapons alone those English soldiers were prepared to meet death in the resolute performance of their duty.

Yours,
ONE OF THE PEOPLE.


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